Pipeline opponents challenge Louisiana law targeting protesters

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups and demonstrators arrested near an Energy Transfer LP crude pipeline filed a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging a 2018 Louisiana state law that made trespassing near oil and gas pipelines a criminal offense.

Felony charges that carry sentences of up to five years in prison were brought last year against protesters and a journalist near the Dallas-based operator’s Bayou Bridge pipeline, which was then under construction, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

After protests erupted near Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline and Bayou Bridge beginning in 2016, 18 states including Texas, Pennsylvania and South Dakota have introduced bills similar to the Louisiana law, according to the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights.

Trespassing near pipelines previously drew misdemeanor charges in Louisiana. The new law aims “to chill, and harshly punish, speech and expression in opposition to pipeline projects,” the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs include environmental groups Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 350 New Orleans and four of the people arrested for trespassing at Bayou Bridge. They also include landowners opposed to the pipeline.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and two other state and local officials were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

A Landry spokesman said the attorney general will vigorously defend the 2018 law, and that environmental groups are free to protest but not “in a manner that obstructs and threatens infrastructure.”

“Our state has an obvious and compelling reason to protect vital infrastructure from criminal trespass, damage, or possible attack,” Landry spokesman Jacques Ambers said in an email. “That should be immediately apparent to rational people.”

“We respect that there are varying opinions on infrastructure projects such as ours and we support the right of all Americans to protest lawfully,” Energy Transfer spokeswoman Vicki Granado said in an email.

Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Richard Chang and Sonya Hepinstall